Mamma and Papa worked hard at trying to provide their growing family with nourishing food. Papa always had a small city garden and Mamma canned and preserved fruit, made jams and jellies in season … and dried greens so that we might have fresh-grown fare even in winter.
I’ve often gone with Mamma to pick greens. We’d wander over vacant lots and down by the railroad tracks to gather the wild white mustard, a dark-green plant with tiny yellow blossoms running up the slender stem. (That’s how it looks late in the season, in blooming time, when the leaves are usually small and the plant ready to go to seed.)
Into our shopping bags we’d put the pungent weed, picking it as cleanly as possible to save work when we reached home. We’d also look for curly dock and lamb’s quarters, a small, many-leaved plant with a silvery shine to the foliage. To these we added great masses of deep-green curly mustard from our garden.
Then I’d help pick over our collection … dry, of course. Mamma always said, “Never wet the greens before you look them over. You’ll just have a soggy mass. And if there’s grass or anything like that mixed in, it’ll be almost impossible to separate.”
Mamma looked carefully at each leaf. Then — slap, slap — she hit the plant against her palm to knock off any bug eggs which might have adhered to the foliage.
After numerous washings — perhaps as few as five or six or as many as ten — the greens were put out on a window screen which had first been covered with a sheet. The rack was usually propped up on a sawhorse or a couple of old chairs so that the air could circulate around it, and the gatherings were left to dry in the sun.
Mamma watched the process carefully, and after a while turned the harvest over onto another screen — also covered with a clean sheet — to cure the other side. After several days and numerous turnings, the leaves were as dry and crisp as potato chips. Mamma stored them in clean, white pillowcases and hung them from the kitchen ceiling. Come winter, they were first parboiled and then cooked like any fresh greens … and were they good!
I remember the fragrant aroma, the wood and coal fire roaring in the old, black kitchen range. Many were the good hot biscuits and pans of corn bread and light bread Mamma took from its cavernous depths. And on top of the stove simmered ham hocks and cabbage … or ham and rutabaga in great slices … or better yet, turnip and mustard greens with small white potatoes buried in their depths. The spuds went in just for the last twenty minutes or so — while the meat and dried leaves got really tender — and came out looking slightly green but delicious with the added flavor of ham and redolent of the mustard. With this boiled dinner we’d have hot golden corn bread or muffins with homemade grape or apple jelly, and lettuce salad.
Oh, yes … you can buy mustard greens now, fresh at our nearby grocery and canned almost anywhere. We just add a can of turnip tops, throw in a couple of ham slices and a few potatoes and cook it all ten minutes in our pressure cooker. But somehow, in our modern electric kitchen it doesn’t seem quite as homey.